Every weekend we dig into the archives. This post was first published in April 2011.

There was a rather weird initiative yesterday morning as I wandered from my bus to work around the corner of Queen Street and Victoria Street – a mariachi band playing in time with pedestrians crossing the road and encouraging people to “check before they step”. It took a visit to Auckland Transport’s website to make sense out of it:

In line with a statistical change in the age of pedestrians being injured, Auckland Transport launched its new ‘Check Before You Step’ pedestrian safety campaign in Aotea Square targeting both pedestrians and drivers…

…At the campaign’s launch a mariachi band played as pedestrians cross the road in Queen Street, Auckland. They played when the lights turned green and stopped when they turned red. The band was a fun interactive way for Auckland Transport to reach its key audience. The campaign uses a cascade of media messages to raise awareness among pedestrians to cross safely and for motorists to slow down. Bus backs and bus shelters around key town centres and pedestrian routes will be used.

Campaigns to improve road safety are certainly excellent – and initiatives to get drivers to slow down is probably the absolute best way to improve road safety, particularly in busy pedestrian areas like downtown Auckland, but there’s a certain undercurrent to much of the thinking about this campaign that frustrates me a bit. Perhaps it’s best illustrated by this quote from Auckland Transport’s Community Transport Manager Matthew Rednall:

“Every day there are pedestrians not checking that the light is green before stepping out into oncoming traffic, and there are pedestrians rushing to get across before the light goes red…

…“Distractions such as listening to music through earphones, talking on mobile phones and jay-walking are also becoming factors in crashes,” said Mr Rednall.

By the sound of all this, you would think there are tonnes of pedestrians wandering out on roads just trying to get themselves killed. I think that’s fairly unlikely myself – and although pedestrians do need to take care when crossing the road, surely a greater onus needs to go onto drivers to make damn sure they’re not going to kill anyone when they’re driving around.

As an interesting aside, I wonder whether one of the most dangerous things for pedestrians in the city centre are the crossing sounds at traffic lights. Just the other day I was waiting, somewhat distracted in my thoughts, at the corner of Victoria and Albert Streets by the bungy machine and the crossing sound went off for the other phase – it was only after about three steps out onto the road did I realise it was for the other phase, and I quickly hurried back. I’m not quite sure how to resolve that particular issue, but I do wonder whether it factors in any vehicle/pedestrian accidents. Certainly I’ve seen over and over again people stepping out when they hear the noise, before quickly realising that it wasn’t actually for them.

Perhaps what annoys me about this “blame the pedestrian” syndrome, is how different things seemed in the North America during my trip there last year. One of the most striking memories I have is how friendly drivers in North American cities (particularly in New York City) are towards pedestrians. Here’s what I wrote back in September last year while visiting:

One thing that I have found interesting in New York is the interaction between pedestrians and motorists. Due to the NYC grid, there are thousands upon thousands of intersections with traffic-lights on Manhattan Island. That means a lot of roads to cross, a lot of lights to wait for. However, usually you don’t have to end up waiting – you just walk as there aren’t particularly many cars except on the main north-south avenues.

Even when there are cars coming through on a green light, they seem to always slow down and give way to pedestrians who are halfway across the road jay-walking. Perhaps it’s the massive number of pedestrians that makes this work, perhaps NYC drivers are just more concerned about pedestrian safety than in Auckland, or perhaps it’s something else altogether. I like the “greying” of the boundaries between pedestrians and vehicles that we see in NYC – a friendliness to pedestrians that I actually didn’t expect to see at all.

Although Manhattan is a really really busy place, both in terms of pedestrians and vehicles, it felt a really safe place to cross the road. Even if you stuffed something up, by forgetting which way traffic was turning or for a second thinking one was back in New Zealand and the cars went the other way, nothing ever seemed particularly dangerous because the drivers are careful.

In places like Auckland’s city centre, or on non-arterial local roads, I wonder whether we need to think a bit more radically about our efforts to improve pedestrian safety. Is there really a reason for any streets in the city centre to have a speed limit of higher than 30 kilometres an hour? Is there really a reason for the speed limits on non-arterial local roads to be any higher than 40 kph? Should pedestrians have a greater level of legal protection in these areas? Maybe one of the reasons pedestrians cross on red lights is because their phasing takes forever – why don’t we do something about that issue?

Those are some interesting questions to ponder, and I think changes like these would be far more effective than blaming pedestrians for getting themselves killed.

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  1. As seen by me yesterday – a pedestrian (wearing headphones), so engrossed in her cellphone, that she walked straight off the kerb and onto a busy major road. I saw her coming and slammed on my brakes, but as I was fully loaded, I barely stopped in time. She wasn’t a young person bit a middle aged person in a business suit. As a regular user of the roads, I believe I have developed a sixth sense as to what is happening around me, and without the sense, that woman would have been beneath the wheels of a 26 tonne truck. Would I have blamed her if that happened, hell yes. By the way, even after I stopped inches from her, she still wasn’t aware of where she was.

    1. One useful way to think about people wearing headphones and stupidly stepping out in front of a 26 tonne truck without checking, is that people with lower cognitive ability, or children, or someone who’s feeling ill or very tired or having a really terrible time emotionally, might do this at any time, too. And the system needs to be set up to protect these people.

      I think the headphone-wearing or cellphone-watching people are being silly, and introducing unnecessary risks, but if they highlight the problems that other people have, it may be a useful stage in the evolution of our safety system. And they’re certainly not the only users of the system taking risks.

      Vision Zero says wherever there are pedestrians, speeds shouldn’t be above 30 km/hr. Luckily it sounds like you were not much above 30 km/hr and so were able to respond in time. But it’s not nice for you to have to do this often. Our system has a problem that there are plenty of places where you could have been driving at 50 km/hr or higher and the same thing happened – but with tragic results.

      Ideally, several things would happen here:
      1. We separate large trucks from pedestrians as much as we can;
      2. Wherever any vehicles and pedestrians are required to use the same street, the vehicles only travel at a maximum of 30 km/hr.
      3. Pedestrians have more, and better, crossing facilities on the known desire lines so have less need to cross in random places.
      4. Pedestrians take more care.
      5. Drivers take more care, as you obviously did. But plenty don’t.

  2. 26 tonne truck city centre – appropriate ? travelling 50km/h close to pedestrians you don’t say. appropriate ? probably not but you have not thought that through, because you are paid to do a job as quickly as possible for as much pay as possible – who would be to blame Not you because you have been put in that position, the lady with the headphones – Yes but mostly mistake should not take lives, Blame your Bosses and the poor planning that has occurred for many years

    1. Agree. I was at a checkpoint with Police recently and whilst there they responded and pulled over a truck driver going through a red- his excuse was ” you cant expect me to slow down and stop just like that- I’ve got work to do” I bet work pays his fine as a business expense

  3. You lot of keyboard warriors are assuming that I was zipping down Queen Street at 50ks. Just for your information I was in Pakuranga and carting in to the new busway, which is actually coming along quite well. Try doing 50ks between the lights in Pakuranga – it’s hardly possible in a car let alone a truck, and this lady was nowhere near any lights or pedestrian crossing. What would your reaction had been if she stepped in front of a bus on the busway, blame the bus driver?

    1. The collision wouldn’t occur– with a tinkling noise akin to pixies sprinkling dust, the bus would become magically incorporeal and travel right through the pedestrian, leaving both unharmed. Passers-by would be amazed, exclaiming, “What? How?” and a wise old man who looked just a little bit like Santa Clause would turn and give a wink… his job here was done. The woman would return home to find a loving family who remembered the true meaning of Christmas, the driver would deliver an armload of food to hungry urchins, and internet commenters would put aside their differences and embrace with ASCII emoji.

  4. Interesting the New York & North America friendly thing. I’ve also heard that from others regarding driver courteous and letting people merge into gaps on the “motorways” etc. Seems to be rarely portrayed in their movies/TV series it seems but rather the opposite for dramatic affect I guess.

  5. As someone who has worked on live roads you learn an important life lesson You do not trust anyone and you have to be aware of your surroundings all the time.
    Using that knowledge I cannot believe pedestrians wearing headphones who walk out onto the road without looking. Becoming pretty common more so than when the original post was written in 2011.
    Disappointingly I see people crossing on pedestrian crossings not looking at the traffic assuming those white painted lines makes them safe.
    Don’t get me wrong vehicle drivers have a duty to look out for pedestrians as vulnerable road users and drive accordingly however we have a society with all sorts on the road with unfortunately some who just don’t take road safety seriously.
    How do you build anything in the city if you think trucks are not appropriate in that environment ?

  6. People immersed in their phones and wearing headphones are not only playing deadly game of roulette with traffic, but with trains as well.

  7. I find it strange that the post talks about the weird campaign with the silly band and then goes on about how they personally stepped out onto the road without checking? Doesn’t that explain the very reason why the campaign is needed?

    I see it all the time and I think it has gotten worse since 2011 because of more smart-phone zombies.

    The buzzer is for the visually impaired who are much more aware of their surroundings, not for people with working eyes. If you don’t see a green signal, don’t cross, unless you want to die. Though I suppose it’s your free choice. Cars can’t stop suddenly when someone steps out unexpectedly. People should take responsibility for their actions. Yes, I do blame pedestrians for not checking before they step out onto the road. Of course, then you have red light runners who should get much harsher penalties.

    The unfortunate difference between us and the US, is that here drivers have right of way in most circumstances. In the US you would get sued into oblivion. Our laws need to urgently change.

    1. “they personally stepped out onto the road without checking? Doesn’t that explain the very reason why the campaign is needed?”

      No, because the campaign can only ever give information. It doesn’t work on people who understand the campaign’s message, but who make a mistake. The system needs to work for people making mistakes, not for people who do things 100% right all the time.

      1. “The system needs to work for people making mistakes,…”

        Ok I understand. So the system needs to work for the mistaken driver who speeds or mistakenly chooses to run the red or mistakenly checks their phone while driving or mistakenly drives drunk or the pedestrian who mistakenly steps out into live traffic because they are too busy on their phone.

        I support lower speeds everywhere, but people really need to take responsibility for their actions. Heavy fines for drivers and pedestrians and cyclists running the red.

        1. If you don’t think we need to design for people making mistakes, Ari, you’re out of step with good international practice. I hope you’re not working in transport.

  8. Roads are dangerous places – before cars, people were stepping in front of horses. Pedestrians need to take some ownership of putting their lives at risk.

    Slowing the traffic down is a dumb idea, following the road rules is the way to stay safe! Traffic should stop at reds (including cyclists) and pedestrians only cross when the light signals it is their turn.

    1. We tried this approach. It didn’t work. Turns out it doesn’t work anywhere. Now we’re in catch-up mode to learn a better way.

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